There is perhaps nothing more likely to give you a healthy skepticism about utopian politics than to know that your father was executed by the Soviet secret police. In the case of the abstract painter Jules Olitski, who died February 4, the result was a lifelong distaste for art that prostituted itself to a political agenda. Today such fastidiousness seems peculiar, the quaint relic of a vanished era, which might account for the note of polite ambivalence in his obituary notices.
Olitski was born in the Ukraine in 1922, a few months after his father’s death. His mother fled to New York, where Olitski grew up and studied painting. His father’s murder seems to have haunted him, and he perpetrated a hoax about a Soviet painter hiding from Stalin’s assassins in a Brooklyn basement, a strange alter ego whom he named Jevel Demekov—a variant of Jevel Demikovsky, his birth name.
Olitski came of age during the heyday of the New York School, but he had little use for the agitated canvases and violent gestures of Jackson Pollock and his ilk. Instead, Olitski looked to purge his canvases of all violence, or even the visible evidence of labor. He dyed his canvases with delicate stains, or sprayed them with fine mists of color; the shimmering pools of color that emerged looked as if they had formed spontaneously, the way that a veil of frost might appear on a window.
Olitski was not alone in his quest for diaphanous color. Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and others pursued similar artistic goals; collectively, they formed the movement known as color-field painting (or “post-painterly abstraction,” the rather ponderous term that Clement Greenberg assigned it). But Olitski’s star was short-lived. With the rise of Pop Art and the increasing politicization of art during the Vietnam war, his sensuous and apolitical art became deeply unfashionable. Nonetheless, he made ravishing chromatic essays to the end. At the same time, he remained a keen and outspoken critic of the art world. In a lecture a few years ago, he suggested that a kind of aesthetic Gresham’s Law was at work, in which low art drove high art out of circulation.
Reputations rise and fall, of course, and it may well be that Olitski will one day be rehabilitated. I rather doubt it. Such rehabilitations require publicity campaigns and the dissemination of images, and Olitski’s fragile essays are impossible to photograph with anything near the chromatic subtlety they require. One would as soon ask a short-order cook to make a copy of a gourmet dinner. This is to be regretted, for at a time when the entanglement of art with politics has been good for neither, Olitski’s principled stand has much to teach us.